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James Prescott Joule was born at Salford, near Manchester, England, on December 24, 1818. He was a great experimenter who was guided by God.
He was the second of five children born to a wealthy brewery owner. As a child, James was weak and shy, and suffered from a spinal disorder. Because of these limitations, he preferred studies to physical activity. Although his spinal problem later improved, it affected him throughout his life.
James was educated at home until he was 15. He then went to work in the family brewery. However, he and his older brother continued their education part-time with private tutors in Manchester.He saw no contradiction between his work as a scientist and his confidence in the truth of the Bible. From 1834 until 1837, they were taught chemistry, physics, the scientific method, and mathematics by the famous English chemist John Dalton. (Like James Joule, Dalton was a Bible-believing Christian.) James gratefully acknowledged the key role that Dalton played in his becoming a scientist. “It was from his instruction that I first formed a desire to increase my knowledge by original researches, ” Joule said.
When their father became ill, James and his brother took over running the brewery. James therefore did not have the opportunity to attend university. However, his great desire was to continue to study science, so he set up a laboratory in his home and began experimenting before and after work each day. James saw this desire to study science as a natural consequence of his Christian faith. As he later wrote, “it is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”
In 1839, Joule began a series of experiments involving mechanical work, electricity and heat. In 1840, he sent a paper entitled “On the Production of Heat by Voltaic Electricity” to the Royal Society in London—probably the most prestigious association of British scientists.
In this paper, he showed that the amount of heat produced per second in a wire carrying an electric current equals the current (I) squared multiplied by the resistance (R) of the wire. The heat produced is the electric power lost (P). (That is, P=I2R.) This relationship is known as Joule’s Law. The Royal Society showed little enthusiasm for Joule’s paper, and published only a brief summary of his findings.
In 1843, Joule calculated the amount of mechanical work needed to produce an equivalent amount of heat. This quantity was called “the mechanical equivalent of heat.” Again he presented a paper on his findings—this time to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Again the response was unenthusiastic. Several leading journals also declined to publish papers on Joule’s work.
Many British scientists were hesitant to accept his work, but Joule patiently persisted. New ideas often take time to gain acceptance, especially if they are put forward by an amateur in that field. Joule’s findings challenged the caloric theory of heat which most physicists believed in at that time. In the caloric theory, heat was believed to be a fluid substance.
Another stumbling block to the acceptance of Joule’s findings was a disbelief of the incredible accuracy of his measurements. But Joule was patient and ingenious in his experiments. These attributes greatly assisted him in avoiding errors and in obtaining results far more accurate than those of previous experimenters.
Joule’s work on the relationship of heat, electricity and mechanical work was largely ignored until 1847. His work then came to the attention of William Thomson. (Thomson, who was later known as Lord Kelvin, was another famous scientist who was a committed Christian.)
Although only 23 years old at the time, Thomson was already Professor of Physics at the University of Glasgow. Thomson recognized that Joule’s work fitted in with the unifying pattern that was beginning to emerge in physics and he enthusiastically endorsed Joule’s work. (In fact, Joule’s work made a significant contribution to the process of unifying the fragmented sections of physics.)
Other enthusiastic supporters of Joule’s work were Michael Faraday and George Stokes. Both were famous scientists who were committed Christians. This endorsement by a few eminent supporters opened doors which previously had been closed to Joule. The Royal Society was now prepared to give him another hearing. In 1849, Joule read his paper entitled “On the Mechanical Equivalent of Heat” to the Royal Society, with Faraday as his sponsor. In the following year, the Royal Society published Joule’s paper and he was elected a member of its prestigious ranks.
New Scientific Discipline—Thermodynamics
The principle of energy conservation involved in Joule’s work gave rise to the new scientific discipline known as thermodynamics. While Joule was not the first scientist to suggest this principle, he was the first to demonstrate its validity. Although Thomson and a number of other scientists later made significant contributions to thermodynamics, Joule is correctly recognized as the chief founder of thermodynamics. He showed that “work can be converted into heat with a fixed ratio of one to the other, and that heat can be converted into work.”
Joule’s principle of energy conservation formed the basis of the first law of thermodynamics. This law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be changed from one form into another.
Isaac Asimov called this law “one of the most important generalizations in the history of science” It means that the total amount of energy (including matter) in the universe is constant. As S.M. Huse points out in his book, The Collapse of Evolution, “This law teaches conclusively that the universe did not create itself! … The present structure of the universe is one of conservation, not innovation as required by the theory of evolution.”
While evolutionists cannot explain how this constant amount of energy/matter originated, the Bible does provide an explanation—only God can create out of nothing. The Bible also teaches that God sustains what He created. All other changes, either by man or the forces of nature, are merely rearrangements of what already exists.